Nobody likes being on the receiving end of passive-aggressive behavior, but sometimes we don’t realize we’re guilty of it, too. So here is a guide to recognizing the subtle signals of being passive-aggressive.
We’ve all come across passive-aggressive behavior at some point — from the friend who compliments your “starter home” to the coworker who checks his phone while you’re talking. But while it’s easy to spot when it’s happening to us, it’s not always easy to know when we’re doing it.
Being passive-aggressive doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Often it’s “a strategy we use when we think we don’t deserve to speak our minds or we’re afraid to be honest and open,” says psychotherapist Tina Gilbertson, LPC, author of Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings.
Are you being passive-aggressive … but have no idea? Here are eight common signs:
1. Asking Threat-Based Questions
Sometimes a passive aggressive-comment can come off as a confrontation-like accusation, says cognitive behavioral therapist Alex Hedger. One example is asking threat-based questions like, “Why on earth would you ever think that?” or even something as simple as, “Are you nuts?” (Unless, of course, the person you’re talking to says something truly off the wall, like she wants to go skydiving without a parachute.)
These questions are not only passive-aggressive, but they also put the other person on immediate defense. So it’s more than likely you won’t get the response you’re looking for.
2. Making Wistful Statements
Another passive-aggressive behavior happens when you want something but aren’t asking for it directly. “For instance, when a friend mentions she’ll be attending a party and you say, “I wish I could go,’” says New York City-based psychotherapist Janet Zinn, LCSW. “It’s better to ask, ‘Any way I could come?’ It’s more direct and doesn’t leave your friend feeling pressured or uncertain.”
Another, far less benign way this type of passive aggression can manifest is through small put-downs and insults, says clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula. For example, someone comes to the office in beautiful new shoes and you say, “I wish I could get a new pair like that — but, sadly, all my shoe money goes to rent.”
Comments like these (perhaps intentionally) make the receiver feel guilty for getting or doing whatever it is that you can’t.
3. Doling Out Backhanded Compliments
Sometimes jealousy and passive aggression combine. Instead of being able to react the way you might want to (happy for the person), you instead say something that just sounds, well, rude.
For example, if a friend gets engaged and you’ve been waiting years for your boyfriend to propose, you might call her new bling “cute” or say you thought the diamond would be bigger. If a friend buys a house and you’re nowhere near a down payment, you might call his place “cozy” or remark that it’s a good “fixer-upper.”
If you catch yourself doing this, take a step back and apologize. It’s better to acknowledge your misstep — even your jealous feelings, if you’re talking to a close pal — than mistakenly assume that no one caught it.
4. Ignoring or Saying Nothing
On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes saying nothing at all is passive-aggressive. According to psychotherapist Katherine Crowley, author of Working for You Isn’t Working for Me, checking your phone when a colleague is trying to speak with you or during a meeting are examples of passive-aggressive behavior.
Sound familiar? Try to break this habit ASAP by not bringing your phone into meetings or even sticking it in your desk drawer when a colleague approaches. (If you get a must-be-answered-now email, momentarily excuse yourself from the conversation or meeting to respond so your typing doesn’t come off as rude.)
Ignoring someone’s calls, emails, or texts as a way of sending a message that you’re upset with him or her is another way this behavior can manifest. “Instead of communicating clearly and honestly, you are dropping hints and waiting for the other person to pick up on them,” says psychotherapist Jessica S. Campbell, LCSW. “When she doesn’t, she is punished with the silent treatment, cold shoulder, or some other method of withholding.”
A more active form of ignoring is procrastination. Maybe you’re unhappy with your job or your role in a particular project, but instead of saying something (or doing something proactive), you take extra-long lunches or even a sick day as the deadline approaches.
Socially, this behavior typically comes in the form of backing out of an obligation at the last minute — like giving an excuse that you can’t make it when you really just didn’t want to go in the first place, says friendship expert Nicole Zangara — or denying knowledge of the event altogether.
“Passive-aggressive behavior has 100 percent deniability and zero percent accountability,” Gilbertson says. “You can always say you didn’t receive the invitation, you lost it, or it completely slipped your mind, while your true motive — to turn down the invitation — remains hidden.”
6. Leaving Someone Out
Perhaps you’re not fond of a certain colleague. Rather than address the issue directly, you go out of your way to edge her out of the office clique. You might do this by inviting everyone on your team to lunch, except her, or gossiping about her, says Crowley.
Another example of passive-aggressive behavior in this category, says counselor Michael Diettrich-Chastain, is when “it’s your day to go on a coffee run for work and you ask everyone in the office except the coworker you don’t like.”
7. Sabotaging Someone
A more extreme move related to leaving someone out is downright sabotaging her. Instead of just excluding someone socially, you purposely leave her off email chains or meeting invites, or even “forget” to tell her when a deadline has been changed. If someone points it out, you make statements like, “Oh, I had no idea,” “I’m so sorry,” or, “I wonder how that happened,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Ben Michaelis, to absolve yourself of blame.
In personal relationships, sabotaging could come in the form of “innocently” bringing your friend a cupcake when you know she’s trying to lose weight or pressuring a pal to hit the mall when she’s struggling to save money. In both cases, you might feel, however subconsciously, jealous or that you lack her discipline or willpower.
8. Keeping Score
When someone misses an important life event of yours, whether it’s not attending your birthday party or not making the effort to go to your wedding, it’s natural to feel disappointed. In many cases, however, instead of confronting the person directly (or letting it go), we tend to fall into a tit-for-tat sort of pattern — which is passive-aggressive.
“For example, you aren’t going to their birthday party because they didn’t come to your baby shower. Or you aren’t inviting them to your dinner party because they couldn’t attend your last one,” Campbell says. “Either way, you are keeping score and not creating a supportive relationship.”